Continued from Chapter 36a

Physical or spiritual body?

What does the New Testament claim happened to the corpse of Jesus? Jesus is said to have been resurrected, to have entered into another kind and level of existence, one in which he will never again die.

The New Testament authors are ambivalent on the subject of whether Jesus was resurrected with a physical body or only as a spirit. What was the state of the returned Jesus? The early church could not agree as to what was his post-resurrection nature: Did he undergo a “physical” or a “spiritual” resurrection? Disputes in early Christian literature show that Christians accepted disparate understandings of Jesus and his alleged resurrection. The earliest Christian teachings did not uniformly stress that Jesus rose with a physical body.

For our discussion, the crucial time period is at the moment the alleged resurrection took place. However, we must take into consideration the nature of the alleged later appearances as well. Luke and John write in their respective Gospels that Jesus appeared, on occasion, after the resurrection in a physical body. John illustrates this by having Jesus order Mary Magdalene to stop touching him (John 20:17). By this he wishes to show that the body of Jesus was, after the resurrection, a tangible object. John continues in this manner when he writes that Thomas was instructed by the resurrected Jesus to touch him.

And after eight days again his disciples were inside and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in the midst, and said: “Peace be to you.” Then he said to Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands, and take your hand and thrust it into my side.” (John 20:26-27) While nothing is mentioned of his actually touching Jesus, the reader is left with the impression that what Thomas discerned was the physical nature of Jesus. John does not indicate whether the apparition actually looked like Jesus. Luke states emphatically that Jesus was not a spirit. He writes that when Jesus allegedly appeared in Jerusalem to the eleven apostles they imagined that they were seeing a spirit. They were then instructed to look at his hands and feet. “‘See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he said this he showed them his hands and his feet” (Luke 24:39-40).

Luke claims that Jesus appeared in an actual physical body, without clearly indicating whether it was the same body as he had before his death. Identification was to be made not by his facial features but by his wounds. The evangelist then states that Jesus, as further proof of his physical state, partakes of their meal (Luke 24:41-43). Luke suggests that a definite physical resurrection took place. The implication of his words is that whereas a spirit is not a tangible object, which one is able to touch, the post-resurrection Jesus was an actual physical being that could be touched and was even capable of consuming food. Alternately, Luke may be saying that Jesus is not simply an intangible spirit but, rather, a “divine being,” which could metamorphose from his “spirit” self to assume a solid material form that could be touched or partake of food.

Whatever Luke or John may have believed about the tangibility of Jesus’ body when he allegedly appeared to his followers, the respective epistles attributed to Peter and Paul state emphatically that Jesus did not rise in a physical body. Paul explicitly denies that the resurrection body is physical. Instead, he said, it is spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:12- 57). In Paul’s explanation of the nature of the body at the time of resurrection, he denies the physical resurrection, saying that the “natural body” is buried, but what is raised is a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). There is a transformation from a dead physical body to a living spiritual one. This he applies not just to ordinary human beings, but even to Jesus. Although Paul refers to the post-resurrection Jesus as a “man” in 1 Timothy 2:5, he obviously does not mean that Jesus is a physical man. Paul emphatically declares the risen Jesus to be spirit, not flesh: “The last Adam [literally “man” in Hebrew] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Accordingly, Paul’s resurrected Jesus was not a man in the physical sense, but rather, a spiritual man. The author of the First Epistle of Peter states that the change from flesh to spirit occurred at the moment of resurrection.

He states that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). The epistles attributed to Peter and Paul provide information, which is in direct contradiction to the claim that Jesus rose in a physical body from his tomb. Paul, in referring to the alleged resurrection of Jesus, does not mention an empty tomb, but says Jesus “was buried and rose again.” To say Jesus “was buried and rose again” is different from saying, “And they found the tomb empty.” The first may mean that Jesus was dead and that his spirit rose from his body that remained stationary in the tomb. The second statement says that something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). There are some that understand this passage to mean that Paul is teaching a physical resurrection. But, this approach ignores what Paul says in the rest of the chapter, especially verses 35-50. As we have seen, there Paul explicitly denies that it is the physical body that is raised; rather, it is the spiritual body that is raised.

Does Paul believe in a physical resurrection?

Not according to his own testimony. Some Christians attempt to harmonize the differences of opinion among the New Testament authors by conjecturing that Jesus had a “glorified” physical body. Therefore, they claim, he could enter locked rooms, appearing and disappearing at will. Others take the view that God disposed of the physical body of Jesus without resorting to the process of decay. Both Peter and Paul propagate a belief that Jesus’ physical body was not preserved for use by the resurrected Jesus. While they do not speculate as to how the physical body was disposed of, neither do they mention a “glorified” physical body. In fact, what they teach is quite contrary to this belief. Paul believes that Jesus had a “body of glory” (Philippians 3:21) but does not state that it was a physical body. He argues that Jesus received a spiritual body at his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:44-49). Paul definitely rules out a physical resurrection in any form for Jesus when he states: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50).

Whether a “physical” or “spiritual” resurrection is contended both views present problems for Christian theology. The author of Hebrews writes that Jesus “offered one sacrifice for all sins for all time” (Hebrews 10:12). This sacrifice was “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 10:10). To this John’s Jesus adds, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven, if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:5). Accordingly, the New Testament’s Jesus could not take back his fleshly body, even as part of a resurrection. To do so would mean taking back the offering given but once as the supreme atonement sacrifice. Taking back his sacrificed fleshly body in resurrection would cancel out the original offering made at the crucifixion for all sins. Jesus’ death is considered as a literal not metaphorical sacrifice presented to God, the Father. Therefore, Jesus could not have risen in the body offered as a sacrifice to God, the Father, as it was no longer his.

Did God, the Father, return his body to him? If so, what sort of a sacrifice would that be?

After all, Jesus is allegedly an equal partner of a triune Godhead who supposedly predicted his own resurrection (Matthew 16:21). Surely, he also knew whether as part of the divine drama he would get his sacrificed fleshly body returned to him. A physical resurrection of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion fleshly body would have profoundly negative christological implications. It would show that Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice. He knew what to expect. He gave up nothing, neither his life nor his body. Both, the New Testament maintains, were returned to him in some form or 5, along with enormous universal power (Philippians 2:8-11).

© Gerald Sigal